Tuesday, November 28, 2017

We’re all in this together: writers, artists and community

The first thing the speaker at this month’s meeting of the Writers Guild of Texas did was move his chair from behind the desk at the front of the room. There he was, sitting little more than a foot away from the rest of us, with no protective piece of furniture in between. Was there a sigh of contentment in the room? A frisson of fear? After all, we’d once had a speaker who tried – with limited success – to make us sing along during a presentation. We were wary of change.

We were wary of getting close.

Which, it turned out, was the point Dallas writer/poet/teacher Joe Milazzo wanted to make. “I think if there’s an occupational hazard to writing – it’s not writers’ cramp or writers’ block. It’s isolation.”

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Although as writers we’re told, necessarily, to just sit down and write, “the seclusion you need can easily grade into isolation. The material we work with as artists – and I call writers artists – is language. Language is inherently social. One way to remind ourselves of the inherent social nature of language is to join communities. Like this one.”

“The action arts – theater, visual, musical – they are really good at social connections.”

Social connections. Those things extroverts do. If there’s a standard personality type for writers, it’s not extrovert. Yes, some of them do exist, rarer than unicorns or the fabled 1 percent of the fabulously wealthy. Most writers, the other 99 percent, so to speak, are introverted. Make that, very introverted.

Milazzo sympathized, admitting, “I find it draining. I think this is a challenge we face as writers. It can be hard to think of socializing as networking when it takes so much out of you.”

But “writing requires readers. It’s a way to communicate. . . To find an audience – I hesitate to use the word ‘compete,” – but we should take notice of the way other arts groups socialize.”

Yes, we’ve watched from safe distances as musicians gather together with each other and their audiences. As do theater and acting ensembles. The thought of an orchestra, a dance group or troupe of actors performing to an empty hall is unimaginable.

But how can dedicated introverts like writers find – form – communities?

First, we need to banish the idea of networking, socializing and community as things that require us to push ourselves in ways that aren’t authentic. Real networking isn’t about how many business cards we distribute, or collect. “It’s showing a genuine interest in others. (And) the amount to which you’re willing to reach out to someone is totally within your control.”

“One way to have readers is to serve as readers ourselves,” he said. Community members can be the first readers and supporters of writers. “You never know when the good you do will come back to you.”

And that other fear of writers – that if we share our ideas, someone will steal them? 

Milazzo cited the MFA program he participated in at California Institute of the Arts, in which people from multiple artistic fields study together. “We really believed that a success for one of us was a success for all of us,” the antithesis of an attitude all too common among writers, “a jealous protecting of one’s own ideas. I get it, but that’s still an attitude I think has to be protected against. Writing, indeed, any artistic endeavor is a hard road to walk. The more people that can walk it with you, the better.”

What other potential members are there for a literary community? “Libraries and independent bookstores are part of that community that deserve patronage.” Also among the components of literary communities are “reviewers, visiting authors, independent publishers. Literary citizenship (even) extends to anyone who can benefit, whether writers or not.”

How about online communities, an audience member asked?

Milazzo admitted, “It’s fraught. It is hard to be genuine sometimes. (But) if there’s a publisher out there or a publication, or an author you admire, connect with them and see what they’re doing on social media. The thing that builds community is still basically correspondence. It may be email, it may be direct messaging on Twitter. . . A good review is not necessarily the same as having a reader write and say, ‘this book mattered to me.'”

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